Author: Jason Truet Glen
It’s Jesus’ words we’re talking about here (Mathew and Luke reporting on what Jesus said). Within my own hermeneutical approach in seeking to appropriately understand and apply biblical passages, I always assign more weight to the reported words of Christ Jesus, not in terms of truth or substance but in terms of ordering and orienting my understanding of the rest of scripture. We see Jesus authoritatively interpreting the Old Testament scriptures on numerous occasions in the New Testament reports, and of course the first chapter of the Gospel of John is all about the fact that Jesus is the explanation of the Father, truth, and grace. He brings the “light” to us. He is the light. So, when Jesus speaks of how He relates to humanity and works within us, I listen real carefully and seek to apply the truth as thoroughly as is reasonably warranted.
Concerning the Parable of the Soils, we have the benefit of having two very specific reports of Jesus explaining this parable to his disciples. In more modern terms, it’s like Jesus is giving a phenomenological explanation of how salvation comes about among some and not others. Therefore, I seek guidance from this parable and explanation when attempting to understand statements by other New Testament writers about belief, faith, salvation, election, predestination, and rebirth (regeneration).
Outline & Summary of the New Testament Occurrences of the Parable:
Matthew 13:1-9 & Luke 8:4-15 (Bold font emphasizes words unique to passage. All scripture NASB 95)
- The First Soil (Non-Soil)
- Matthew 13:4: Seeds fell beside the road. Birds came and ate them.
- Luke 8:5: Seed fell beside the road. It was “trampled under foot” and birds ate it.
- The Second Soil
- Matthew 13:5-6: Seeds fell on rocky places with little soil. Seeds sprang up into a plant quickly, as the soil was shallow. The sun came out and scorched them because they had no root.
- Luke 8:6: Seed fell among rocky places, and as soon as it sprung up it “withered away, because it had no moisture.”
- The Third Soil
- Matthew 13:7: Seeds fell among the thorns and were choked out.
- Luke 8:7: Seed fell among the thorns and the thorns grew up with the plant and choked it out.
- The Fourth Soil
- Matthew 13:8: Seeds fell on the good soil and yielded various levels of crops; 30fold, 60fold, 100fold.
- Luke 8:8: Seed fell into the good soil and produced a crop 100x as great.
Parable of the Sower, Jesus’ Explanation
- The First Soil (Non-Soil)
- Seed: “word of the kingdom”
- Circumstances: The person hears the message but “doesn’t understand it.”
- Outcome: “Evil one” comes and takes it away “what has been sown in his heart.”
- Luke 8:11-12:
- Seed: “word of God”
- Circumstances: The message is heard, but then the “devil” comes along and “takes away the word from their heart.”
- Outcome: They “will not believe and be saved.”
- The Second Soil
- Matthew 13:20-21:
- Circumstances: “Has no firm root in himself.” “Affliction and persecution arises because of the word.”
- Outcome: Immediately hears the word and “receives it with joy,” but his reception is only temporary and “immediately he falls away” after pain and persecution.
- Luke 8:13:
- Circumstances: “They have no firm root.” A “time of temptation” comes.
- Outcome: They hear the word and receive it with joy. “They believe for a while” but then they fall away because of the temptation.
- Matthew 13:20-21:
- The Third Soil
- Matthew 13:22:
- Circumstances: Person “hears the word” but the “worry of the world” and “deceitfulness of wealth” come.
- Outcome: The word is choked by “the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth.” The plant in this soil “becomes unfruitful.”
- Luke 8:14:
- Circumstances: People who hear and continue on their way are confronted with “worries and riches and pleasures of this life.”
- Outcome: No fruit is brought to “maturity” among these people because “they are choked” by these distractions.
- Matthew 13:22:
- The Fourth Soil
- Matthew 13:23:
- Circumstances: “man who hears the word and understands it.”
- Outcome: Some people bring forth 30fold, 60fold, 100 fold fruit.
- Luke 8:15:
- Circumstances: “These are the ones that have heard the word in an honest and good heart.”
- Outcome: They “hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.”
- Matthew 13:23:
My Interpretation and Commentary:
What is the Seed?
A contextual reality to consider in reading this parable is that Jesus is obviously relaying this parable prior to his death and resurrection. The fullness of the gospel message has not yet been thoroughly relayed or understood by the disciples at the time that Jesus told this parable. However, at the time of the writing, Matthew and Luke know full well what Jesus means by “word of the Kingdom” and “word of God.” Luke 8:12 offers contextual clarity to what the seed is because it speaks of an absence of belief which brings about an absence of salvation. We see in these verses the common New Testament correlating elements of hearing the gospel, believing the gospel, and consequential salvation. Then we can confidently conclude that the “word of the Kingdom” is the saving message of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins and the securing of new life for all that believe. We are given no reason to believe that different seed is sown on the different soils. We’re also not given any impression that the Spirit of God or the “power of salvation” (Romans 1:16-17) is not present with any of the seeds. The seeds are all effective. It’s the soils that are under scrutiny.
What is the Soil?
You see a slightly different emphasis in terminology in Luke vs. Matthew in terms of what words are used to describe the soil. In Luke you have a variation of hearing mentioned in all four soils, but you also have two mentions of a variation of understanding, one mentions in the first soil and in the last. The first soil doesn’t understand and the last one does understand. Matthew only uses the term heart once in the explanation, so there is a stronger emphasis on hearing and understanding, which seems to point to what we would refer to as the mind.
Luke, on the other hand, uses the term heart twice, once in the first soil and once in the last. Luke also uses the term believe twice, once in the first and second soils. But in the fourth soil we see a phrase “hold it fast,” which relates very closely with the term belief. We also see the phrase, “receives it with joy.” This phrase definitely relates to some form or understanding or belief. So, what we see in Luke is an emphasis on hearing, the heart, and believing.
Based on the terms associated with how the soil is described and how the soil is said to respond, we can surmise that the soil is both associated with the heart and mind, and with belief and understanding. These terms all reference human agency. We also read of circumstances that correlate with circumstances of the mind and heart, such as joy, temptation, honest, and worry. You’ll notice that emotions are present within these circumstances of the heart. So the soil, at the very least, represents the cognitive and emotional capacities of the heart and mind. The will is not specifically referenced in these passages, but there is terminology that is consistent with the human will, such as belief, hold, “falls away,” “brings forth,” and “go on their way.” Thus, we can also confidently suggest that the human will is at least associated with the soil Jesus is describing. The soil is associated with thinking, feeling, willing, believing human beings and the circumstances that surround their response to the message that they are presented by the sower.
My Take on the Four Soils:
The First Soil (Non-Soil): It’s easy to rush over this first ‘soil,’ but it’s important that we do not. This amounts to basically gravel. This paradigm is one where there doesn’t seem to be any chance for saving belief because there is no understanding. If you combine Luke and Matthew you have the progression of hearing the message, it’s sown in the heart, there’s no understanding, Satan comes to take away the message, and the person is not saved. It seems that in this case there seems to be an emphasis on the lack of understanding and on Satan’s proactivity in taking away the message after it’s not understood.
There’s no confusion that this person represents those who don’t come to saving belief in Christ. Other than the fact that the text says that the message is “sown in his heart,” there’s no inference that this person recognizes their need for salvation and thus does not receive it. I personally don’t believe that this “soil” is referencing those without literal mental capacity to understand language or objective truth claims in general. In my opinion, this text is not talking about the mentally disabled or those whose brains never develop to the capacity of cognition. This is a person who “hears” the gospel and has it sowed in their “heart.” They just don’t get the relevant meaning or importance of what they are hearing.
The Second Soil (Rocky-Shallow Soil): The second soil is a little more difficult to parse, and to theologically swallow for that matter. This is a type of person that, for all intents and purposes, has understood the gospel. They “receive it with joy.” It’s exciting to hear. We all know someone like this. They’re in a hard place and someone shares the good news of forgiveness in Christ Jesus to them. Someone tells them that the King has come to reconcile the lost sheep. But we’re told that whatever took place in the mind and heart of this person, they fell away. The language in this second soil narrative is also unique because in both Matthew & Luke Jesus says that there is “no firm root.” This gives a little more understanding to why this type of person falls away. Whatever understanding and belief that they do have, when “affliction,” “persecution,” and “temptation” arise it’s inadequate to maintain their belief.
It’s certainly understandable when a reader is a bit confused by the circumstances of this soil, but I believe that other New Testament passages can be very helpful in understanding what type of person Jesus is referring to. I’m reminded of Hebrews 6:1-8. The author of Hebrews tells us of another type of person that seemingly understands and receives the gospel. They’re even said to “have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted of the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” (vs. 4-5) The text then says that “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance” (v. 6). The point of these passages in Hebrews is to show that there are those who have understood what God is offering, having both realized and possibly experienced, in some capacity, the peace that is provided through the message of forgiveness in Christ Jesus and yet then willfully rejected it as something applicable to their own lives.
The Apostle John gives us another passage of clarity concerning these types of people. He writes in 1 John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.” John gives us some clarity here that certainly, at the very least, includes those mentioned in Hebrews 6 and those of the “rocky soil” mentioned in Matthew and Luke. I believe it can clearly be discerned that these individuals were never personally the elect found in Christ. The elect are the elect because they are secure in Christ Jesus. If one is found in Christ, Christ says that he gives “them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). For those who have truly believed in Christ, entering into His election, Paul says that they are then “sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance…” (Ephesians 1:13-14). So what we see among the type of person mentioned in the second soil is one whose belief and understanding are not effective, not because the message or the sower has made their belief or understanding ineffective, but because of the circumstances surrounding them and the intentionality driving their willful falling away. The text gives the impression that, like the rich young ruler (Matthew 19), they’ve weighed the cost-benefit analysis of the gospel for their own lives and they’ve chosen to walk away from the offer.
The Third Soil (Among the Thorns): The third soil is another one of those ambiguous cases, but less so, in my opinion, than the second. The third is unique in that it is said to have fallen among thorns, which grew up around it and choked it to the point that it “becomes unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22). We don’t see the same reference to “fruit” in the Luke narrative, but the “choke” terminology is in both versions and thus we can assume that Luke is referencing the same unfruitfulness. A very important quality of the second soil that is not found in the third soil is the quality of falling away. This type of individual is said to have heard then went “on their way” (Luke 8:14). The third soil has the least said about it, but we can assume that it is not the same soil as the second. There’s a reason that Jesus articulates another type of soil. If he was just adding “worries and riches and wealth” to the already mentioned “temptations” and “affliction” of the second soil, it doesn’t seem like articulating a whole other soil would be necessary. It’s important to notice the lack of reference to time in this soil as well. It doesn’t “immediately” get choked out. I believe that the reference to “as they go on their way” (8:14) in Luke’s narrative is at least a reference to the understanding and belief of the gospel that is present in the second soil, but we’re given the impression that this time there is a sustained belief and understanding. We’re given the impression that this plant has grown up…that fruit is expected from it based upon its longevity and form.
These qualities and absence of qualities give me the impression that Jesus means to communicate that these are Christians, whose belief is salvific in nature. But we’re told that because of worry, temptation, and deception this plant in this soil isn’t bearing mature fruit with consistency. We aren’t given the impression that this plant has never produced fruit. We’re just told that it’s being hindered from proper functionality. What one would expect from the plant is being undermined by circumstances that hinder the fruitfulness.
There are many scriptures that reference “fruit” as being a sign of our status as regenerated Christians, such as Galatians 5, Matthew 3, Ephesians 5, John 15, Matthew 7 and many others. So, if this is the case, how can we conclude that this set of people are Christians? I’ve already articulated the terminological differences between the second and third soils, but a verse that can give us a working paradigm is 1 Corinthians 3. Paul is explaining what mature Christianity looks like. He’s talking about what it looks like to be fruitful, though he uses the language of building instead. He says that “each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (3:13-14). For lack of a better term, we’re given the impression that this person is unfruitful, and yet he is still a member of the elect in Christ Jesus. He’s saved. The understanding and belief of this person that Paul is talking about is real and effective. He can be said to have saving faith despite the fact that his fruitfulness is choked.
The Fourth Soil (Fruit-Bearing): If I was writing a full commentary on Luke or Matthew, I’d go into great detail on how this particular soil is confirmed and reaffirmed all throughout scripture. The primary message is extremely clear. There is a type of people who receive the gospel in such a way that they respond to it with understanding, belief, and a level of actional commitment that fosters Kingdom activity at various levels of abundance. There is no question of who these people are and of whether their active faith is pleasing to God. They are not only elected in Christ, but they outwardly prove their security in Christ through their various levels of fruit. They “hold fast” to the gospel and, unlike those of the third soil, they “bear fruit” in “perseverance.” Their fruit comes to maturity, and it keeps consistently being produced. This is the ideal follower of Christ. This is what the Spirit of God is empowering us for. Once again, the many passages pertaining to the fruit of the Spirit and of salvation would be relevant to accompany this passage (Galatians 5, Matthew 3, Ephesians 5, John 15, Matthew 7). Of all the four soils, this is the only set of individuals whose eternal security with Christ is not questioned by those seeking to discern the proper interpretation of this parable. We should all hope and strive to live a life that is characterized by this soil.
Systematic Theology and the Four Soils: In systematic theology, there’s a good bit of disagreement on which soils stand for what. While I don’t believe the primary purpose of this parable was to demarcate clear levels among the saved and the reprobate, it’s clear to most theologians and bible scholars that there’s more meat here than Jesus just telling his disciples to go and bear fruit. There are essentially three positions on what the soils equate to in reference to salvation. There’s the 1-3 (The last three soils are saved), the 2-2 (Essentially where my position would currently fall), and the 3-1 (Only the last is saved). Again, not every scholar interprets this passage as communicating who is saved and who is not, but good many do.
My Final Theological Thoughts:
As I stated at the beginning, this parable and its explanation are an important hermeneutical tool for me in reading other scripture passages about human nature, salvation, election, regeneration, eternal security, human agency, spiritual ability, fallenness, and many other themes in the scriptures. A couple other general observations to point out are that Jesus doesn’t specifically say who the sower is or the exact means by which it is sown. We could infer that the sower is the Holy Spirit, but we also know that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3 that he “planted the seed.” I don’t believe it would be controversial to say that we partner with God in sowing and watering the seed. The hidden and exclusive process is in the fact that only “God made it grow” (1 Cor. 3:6). But what I believe this teaching of Jesus does explain is that there are levels of receptivity within human hearts, like in soils. There are soil conditions that are influenced by biology, Satan, demons, angels, fallen humanity, faithful humanity, and the sovereign work of the Spirit of God. From this teaching we have no reason to believe that the revealing of the children of God is inconsistent with human free agency. That said, there is nothing in the soil alone that could produce a plant. The soil is not able to be fruitful on its own terms in its own capacity. I personally believe that Luke 8:13’s reference to an “honest and good heart” is a reference to the conditions of receptivity that reside in such a person, rather than in some inherent virtue of the person, whether self-nurtured or nurtured by the Holy Spirit in some fashion. All soils are in desperate need of a Sower and a Seed, apart from which it could do nothing. Even the good soil is inadequate. The receptivity of the soil isn’t a skill set, virtue, or an ability, but rather a level of awareness of need. An honest heart isn’t virtuous if it is simply sees its own depravity and yet continues in it without repentance. Even the demons are honest with themselves about who Christ is. The “honest and good heart” in Luke points to conditions of depth of awareness and understanding of its need for the seed from the Sower.
“Deep calls to deep at the sound of Your waterfalls;
All Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me.” (Psalm 42:7)